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WPA murals will be preserved at St. Petersburg Piano Exchange

ST. PETERSBURG

The founders of Jannus Landing are coming out of retirement to do it again. Bob Barnes and Bill Pendergast have plans for a downtown entertainment hall as unusual as the concert venue they built in 1984. But before they transform the Garden Cafeteria and Piano Exchange building that housed their old offices, they are playing preservationists.

For the past several months, workers at 232 Second St. N, across from BayWalk, have begun protecting two floor-to-ceiling paintings and 64 smaller drywall panels along the rafters of the hangar-like structure.

The larger paintings, of a banyan tree and a jungle scene, were created by the Works Progress Administration artist George Snow Hill. The smaller ones, of flamingos, pelicans, palm trees and monkeys, were probably painted by his assistant, according to the St. Petersburg Preservation Society.

Barnes and Pendergast recently took the building back from developers Grady Pridgen and Dan Harvey, to whom they sold it for $1.6 million in 2005. The preservation group had fought plans to tear down the storied Spanish Mission-style building and erect a 19-story, mixed-used tower there.

In 2007, the City Council denied an appeal by the preservation group to stop the project, with the caveat that the developers protect the murals. The preservationists were left scratching their heads about what to do with the large paintings, which unlike the small panels, cannot be moved.

Under an agreement with the new owners, the preservation group is taking possession of the 64 smaller panels and bringing in a master painter to restore the murals. The smaller paintings, some of which are badly damaged, will most likely end up in a museum.

"We are very, very happy to have reached an agreement with the owners of the building," said Maureen Stafford, president of the preservation group.

Though not protected by historic status, the building was included in the city's successful petition for a downtown national historic district. In 1936 it entered its most illustrious age as the Garden Cafeteria. Surrounded by Snow Hill's murals, tourists, locals and soldiers were served fine food at affordable prices during the Depression. It is one of the few remaining examples of what historians refer to as St. Petersburg's "cafeteria culture." The most prominent example of that period is the Tramor, at 123 Fourth St. S, which is owned by the St. Petersburg Times.

Barnes and Pendergast say they are prepared to spend lavishly on their project, which will be capable of hosting a concert, wrestling match or wedding. They characterized their vision as Nova 535, the event space on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, but on a larger scale. Their plans also include a kitchen and a 50-seat bar facing Second Street that would keep its own hours.

Except for the work permits for roof repairs and to remove the smaller murals, nothing has been approved by the city. But building official Rick Dunn said the city would consider applications to put a bar and entertainment hall there.

Seven years ago, John C. Bodziak had similar plans for the building but they were derailed because the city said it was too close to First United Methodist Church. Dunn said that the city's zoning rules have since changed.

Preservation work has already begun. Local contractor Richard Hicks of Creative Homes has gutted the building and is overseeing a complete overhaul. In the fall, Hilda Neily, a master painter from Provincetown, Mass., will arrive to clean and retouch the large murals. The owners hope that next year the murals will serve as a focal point in the new venue.

Said Pendergast: "We are making a big effort to preserve as much as we can."

Reach Luis Perez at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

time line

The life of

232 Second St. N

1928 City directory lists it as First Baptist Tabernacle.

1930 Then the Second Street Auditorium.

1934 Then the Second Street Garage.

1936 Then the Garden Cafeteria.

1977 Barnes and Pendergast move their piano business there.

2001 Barnes and Pendergast put the 13,000-square-foot building up for lease.

2003 Jannus Landing owner John C. Bodziak plans to convert the space into a nightclub.

2004 Facing roadblocks, Bodziak withdraws plans.

2005 Barnes and Pendergast sell to developers Grady Pridgen and Dan Harvey for $1.6 million.

2007 Amid protests, Pridgen and Harvey announce plans to erect a 19-story tower.

2007 Sculptor Terry Krogmann moves his studio in.

2007 City Council denies an appeal by preservationists.

2009 Krogmann moves out.

2009 Abandoning the plans for a tower, Pridgen and Harvey sell the building back to Barnes and Pendergast.

2010 Barnes and Pendergast announce plans for an entertainment hall.

WPA murals will be preserved at St. Petersburg Piano Exchange 04/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 6:34pm]
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